The trailer for the inflammatory video “Innocence of Muslims” had languished in obscurity online since July, before it sparked outrage this week in the Muslim world.
Zeynep Tufekci, a visiting scholar at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy has examined just how the video went from obscurity to notoriety practically overnight.
“In September, it was picked up by a few bloggers in Egypt, and it was then picked up by Egyptian television stations which played it again and again, and gave it great prominence, partly because they are television stations using it to make a political point,” Tufekci says.
She argues that trying to restrict internet speech is not likely to be effective or possible. Instead, Tufekci says instead greater attention should be placed on thinking about how we design internet sites, communicate with citizens of other countries and try to open channels of dialogue.
“The people who like to create these hateful videos, and the people who use it as a pretext for violence are actually not in clash. They’re in a nice mutually enforcing symbiotic relationship …They’re both getting what they want out of it,” Tufekci says. “It’s up to citizens, it’s up to media to try to explain and calm down and create channels of conversation so that the impact of such provocations is less.”
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Marco Werman: Now back to the film at the current wave of anti-American protests in the Mid East. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the man who produced it or what he hoped to accomplish, but we do a little about how this movie went from obscurity to lightening rod via the internet. Zeynep Tufekci is a visiting scholar at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. She says a trailer for the film was posted online in July and was initially ignored for the most part.
Zeynep Tufekci: In September, it was picked up by a few bloggers in Egypt and it was then picked up by Egyptian television stations which played it again and again and gave it great prominence, partly because these are television stations using it to make a political point. And it was only after it was picked up by broadcast media it came to the attention of the millions of people and became the clashing point that it has.
Werman: Right. And as we just heard from the protests in Sana’a, no one that the reporter spoke to had actually seen it. So in a way it doesn’t even matter what’s on it, just the fact that it exists. Have we seen this pattern of social media distribution protest and reaction before?
Tufekci: Absolutely. This is not the first time nor is it the last time. We had the controversy over the cartoons in a Danish newspaper in 2006. That resulted in a lot of protests. And a lot of people have forgotten that there was an incident in 2007 in Northern Iraq where two Yazidi towns were car bombed in response to another YouTube video which showed the horrific stoning death of a Yazidi girl who had supposedly ran away with a Sunni boy and the video was posted on YouTube.
Werman: There’s still a big disconnect here. I mean no matter where the film came from or how it came to be, this is a free speech issue for many, and I’m not just talking about here in the US, in the Arab world too, and for others it’s seen as a hate crime. So tell us, you’re in constant touch with a lot of Egyptians, why is it seen so differently by two different cultures?
Tufekci: This isn’t just a clash between United States, say, and the Middle East. This is also a big difference between the United States and Europe. For example, in Europe, there are many laws that criminalize denying or having [??] of a genocide, especially the Nazi holocaust and people have been sent to jail for that. I think one big clash is why such a video has no government attention in the United States, which for us is normal because the US had the First Amendment for a couple of hundred years. We’re kind of used to this. This is just the way it goes. Whereas especially in the Middle East, if you remember these people overthrew Mubarak just a year ago, they lived in a very, very stifled public sphere environment.
Werman: Such a great value, as you pointed out, is placed on free speech in the US, but the internet is not our fathers’ medium. It burns like gasoline. What are you thoughts on some kind of regulation with this technology?
Tufekci: Rather than looking at restrictions on speech, I think there’s great value in looking at how we design these sites, how we communicate with people in other countries, and whether we can open up channels of dialog so that people from the United States can explain to Egyptians about the First Amendment and the fact that there’s an offensive video doesn’t mean that that either the US government or a majority of the American people have anything to do with it or any kind of approval of it. I’m not sure that trying to restrict speech is either effective or possible at this time. The genie is out of the bottle, the content is going to find the way around, and I think the people who like to create this hateful videos and the people who it as a pretext as violence are actually not in clash. They are in a nice mutually reinforcing symbiotic relationship that they found each others audience, they’re both getting what they want out of it. I think it’s up to the rest of the world, it’s up to citizens, it’s up to media to create channels of conversation so that the impact of such provocations is less. And I personally believe that we should just get used to the fact that there will be people who will say things we do not like and this culture of free speech and getting used to dealing with offensive speech is going to hopefully spread to a lot of other places in the world too as more and more of these cycles happen. In fact, I’m seeing these discussions play out in the Middle East and North Africa and other countries a Muslims around the world are questioning, “Why don’t we just ignore these things?”
Werman: Zeynep Tufekci, a visiting scholar at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. Thanks very much.
Tufekci: Great talking to you as usual.
Werman: Our coverage continues online. The World’s language editor, Patrick Cox, asks “Should Americans limit their speech for the sake of the Arab Spring?” You can find that blog post at theworld.org.
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